Across the country, states and school districts are focusing on turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Unprecedented federal Race to the Top and School Improvement Grant funding accompanied by a more prescriptive approach for using the funds has raised the profile of turnaround efforts. This focus on school turnaround, while welcome, is not new. State, district, and school leaders have been trying for years to turn around persistently low-performing schools. But while some schools have made significant gains in student achievement, results overall are decidedly mixed.
One of the overarching reasons for the uneven results is that districts generally have failed to recognize that persistently low-performing schools face unique challenges that require aggressive, customized, and sustained interventions. Instead, districts create one-size-fits-all intervention programs providing each target school with the same dollars, instructional coaches, or other support, regardless of differences in individual school needs. These resources are often layered on top of existing policies, programs, staffing, and schedules, without addressing underlying flaws in those structures. The result is often a standalone, add-on approach that neither addresses the needs of each individual school nor fixes the district-level conditions that allowed the school to fail in the first place.
For more than a decade, Education Resource Strategies, Inc., or ERS, has worked with urban districts to transform the use of people, time, money, and technology so that all students receive the support they need to succeed. Based on this work ERS believes that successful school turnaround also requires district turn-around—fundamental changes in the way that districts think about and provide support for schools. ERS has identified five steps that districts can take in designing and implementing their school improvement programs that will increase the probability that their efforts will achieve lasting improvement:
- Understand what each school needs.
- Quantify what each school gets and how it is used.
- Invest in the most important changes first.
- Customize the strategy to the school.
- Change the district, not just the schools.
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